It looks like 2016 is going to be another year of the vegetable. Heirloom or baby, organic or obscure, chefs can’t get enough of prime produce. They’re working creative, colorful magic with veggies, often with a side of pork belly.
Vegan dining — particularly vegan dining at Herban Fix, a swanky, zen Asian restaurant down the road from the Fox Theatre — requires a shift of mindset. This food isn’t so much about worshipping at the altar of vegetables as it is as about the absence of animals.
There’s plenty of green (and orange and aubergine) on the dinner menu, but what’s more striking is the preponderance of stand-ins. The soy “fish.” The mushroom “steak.” The “poultry” — both duck and chicken — that began as tofu.
This is food for a certain kind of vegan. Maybe for someone who has sworn off meat, dairy and eggs for reasons ethical, environmental or health-related, but who still harbors a bit of buried bloodlust in his or her soul. Perhaps for someone who dutifully laces a stir-fry with tofu, but in the wee hours secretly dreams about rare steak, cracked crab legs and pork ribs.
As it happens, I brought to Herban Fix a friend who is the other kind of vegan. Left to her own devices, she tells me, she usually whips up a meal in which veggies star as themselves and only sparingly reaches for meat substitutes.
Apparently, she’s in the minority at Herban Fix. When I asked the server at our Saturday night dinner for the crowd favorites, she really pushed the faux flesh.
And the mushrooms. There are a lot of mushrooms on Herban Fix’s menu, including a toothsome truffled wild rice scattered with a generous amount of wild shrooms. I love me some fungi, but too many start to make the spread awfully beige.
That said, Herban’s must-have dish is a mushroom that’s also a simulated steak: the seared pom pom. This frondy, tennis-ball shaped fungus, sometimes called a lion’s mane mushroom, is so much meatier than the marinated portobello caps chefs used to throw into buns and call burgers. The texture is a cross between beef and pulled pork, but the peppery, thickened sauce calls to mind steak.
Part of the fun of this dish is the bait-and-switch of it. In a blind taste test, a good many people would peg it as a very tasty fillet mignon.
Oh, yeah, there was some nice bok choy bathing in that sauce.
Juxtaposed with the steak-like mushroom, my order of faux fish was not a textural match for the real thing. The only thing fishy about the thin, dark-edged slices of soy was a faint whiff of crab stick. So, how did it work as a tofu dish? Not bad. The tofu was a bit stringy and tough, but the nutty curry blanketing it was spicy and flavorful, if a bit thick.
And, yeah, all that came atop a bed of crunchy kale.
The sweet pea ravioli in curry jus is another dish in which the vegetables felt like an afterthought. The pasta, which tasted more like a chewy wonton wrapper, was stuffed with tightly packed, slightly crunchy greens that were tasty in and of themselves, but largely unadorned. A silky coconut curry sauce saved the day on this plate.
It was the soy that really started the soul-searching at our table. An appetizer of crispy tofu in sambal was a disappointment. The delicate crust didn’t provide enough crunch or flavor to give life to the soft, silken tofu and the sauce was reminiscent of the sweet chile sauce found in Thai takeout. The tofu had a slight chemical aroma to it — a sign of plastic packaging. (Herban Fix co-owner Donald Mui confirmed that the restaurant’s tofu is not housemade.)
The crispy soy duck, served in rubbery steamed buns, had a strangely unnatural flavor to it, although with its plummy sauce and crunchy cucumber accent it’s not a disappointing package as a whole.
I ordered such soy-ful dishes, not only because our server was so adamant in her recommendations, but also because I wanted to see what sort of fun chef Wendy Chang (formerly of Tamarind Thai) would have with the challenges. On a future visit, I might go for more of the simpler items, like the salad of seasonal vegetables with roasted nuts or crispy purple yam cakes.
Indeed, one of our favorite Herban dishes was a clear consommé infused with the aromas of lemongrass and cilantro and studded with nothing but a few jewel-green dumplings. The soup felt pure and clean and sophisticated.
The bottom line: If I were vegan, I’d go back to Herban Fix in a heartbeat, and I’d do it on another Saturday evening. Date night-worthy ambiance and an expansive, all-vegan menu is a very rare combo. With its patterned carpeting, soaring ceiling and dusky lighting, Herban’s Peachtree Street space has the lounge feel of a hotel lobby bar. (I happen to love hotel lobby bars.)
There is good wine and beer here, pretty plating, and the spicy aromas of pan-Asian cooking without the intrusive scent of seared meat. There is sexy jazz on the sound system and sumptuously comfortable seating.
And did I mention those big goblets of wine? When succumbing to your meaty yearnings with Herban’s delicious pom pom steak, order a red.